The Art of Waiting: Gianni Berengo Gardin photographs Renzo Piano @Istituto Italiano di Cultura

JTF (just the facts): A total of 34 black-and-white photographs, in white mattes and black frames, displayed on white walls at three locations within the building: on four walls of the northwest gallery on the ground floor (14); on the south wall of the landing on the second floor (10); and on three walls of the southwest gallery on the second floor (10.) On a table in the center of this last room is a selection of drawings and blueprints by Renzo Piano. On another table is a video monitor featuring a 2019 interview, in color, in which Piano and the photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin are questions by the curator Guido Risicato and the American writer Michael Frank. All prints are non-vintage gelatin silver and either 11×14 inches or the reverse. Notes and installation were produced by guest curators Risicato and Lorenzo Trompetto, while the photographs were chosen by Gardin. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Gianni Berengo Gardin (b. 1930), probably the most celebrated living Italian photographer, has worked for more than 50 years with a small hand-held camera in the manner of Carter-Bresson and other 20th century believers in the precepts of unobtrusive documentary. Steadily prolific since his twenties, he has published by his own estimate 250 books, all but about 10 in black-and-white.

Gardin is neither a total stranger to New York audiences nor yet a familiar name. His 1959 photograph of a rainswept Piazza San Marco in Venice was a highlight of Mid-Century Post-War Italian Photography at the Keith de Lellis Gallery in 2014; and two of his Italian social landscapes from the late ‘50s (one of a village in Apulia, another of a couple on a motor scooter speeding past a building protest in Milan) were included in last year’s mammoth survey exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery, Neorealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960 (reviewed here.) Daily life in the cities and villages of Italy has been his main concern, although he has ventured frequently to India to photograph in the countryside.

This small show at the Italian Cultural Institute is a tribute to his longstanding friendship with Renzo Piano. Since 1979 Gardin has documented the Italian architect’s projects around the world, a 40-year effort resulting in some 10,000 images. From this vast archive Gardin has selected 34 prints that reflect 20 of Piano’s designs—in Italy, France, Japan, and Germany—constructed between the late 1970s and mid-2000s. The installation is roughly chronological, beginning on the ground floor with the earliest projects.

Three photographs of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris open the show. Young tourists, for whom the museum has become as cozily beloved as the Eiffel Tower, may not know that the structure was derided in the press as hideously ugly when it opened in 1978. Critics objected that Piano and Richard Rogers, his English partner on the radical design, had distributed load-bearing elements to the outside walls and displayed there what is usually tucked away on the inside, namely the tubular HVAC units, the main escalator, and other “guts.”

Through his wide-angle lens, and standing far away from the visitors, Gardin pictures them moving serenely, if facelessly, within grids of glass and steel. These views (undated) turn out to be the exception in the show and in the history of their collaboration. He prefers to photograph buildings as they are going up, not after they are finished. Piano describes their partnership in the wall text: “When a building is being done, it belongs to you. To you and the workmen. It’s the time when you feel the strongest pride of making something. Gardin has always managed to see and capture those magical moments that vanish if you don’t capture them. The truth is they are more beautiful than the finished building, which hide how they were made, how they were conceived, how they were put together. The unfinished object contains so much: there’s air, light, transparency—call it the cumulative beauty of the incomplete.”

As with Cartier-Bresson, Gardin’s eye is drawn to geometric patterns, intricate or bold. His slightly chilly impersonality is balanced by a regard for the anonymous laborers who put mechanical things together. Piano designed the Prometeo musical space as a portable “ark” in 1983-84 that could be dismantled and transported to various locales. (It was used for an opera by Luigi Nono at the 1994 Venice Biennale.) Gardin’s photographs show the giant curved ribs of the riveted structure being assembled within a larger interior by busy, shirtless young workmen crouched around the bases.

There is seldom anything worshipful in Gardin’s attitude toward the buildings or the process of construction. The aura of glamour and leisure that pervades the architecture photographs of, say, Julius Shulman or Ezra Stoller is absent. Nor is Gardin intrigued by decadence or decay, qualities found in the opulent color work of Robert Polidori and Andrew Moore. Gardin regards himself as a reporter, not an artist.

The Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, a landmark of modernism that Piano was commissioned to convert into an entertainment complex between 1988-1995, is rendered dispassionately, as a set of concrete pillars in empty space, as banks of dirt and sand—pieces of the structure’s skeleton, not the final, visible product. Bits of visual wit leaven the reportage. In the one image here with people in it, a trio of Torino workmen have unknowingly arranged themselves as a pyramid (Gardin’s camera peers through the open legs of one of them) while a fourth man holds the strands of a cable that is the object of their joint concentrated effort. From the presumably dozens of photographs he made during construction of the San Nicola Football Stadium in Bari, Italy, built between 1987-1990, Gardin chose two that highlight skeins of rebar and one that has perhaps twenty workers scattered across an empty sandy plain—as though assembled on a grassless pitch for a game.

“Waiting is the center of what I do,” Gardin has said. So is circumstance and luck. He happened to be present as an old couple stood staring at the sea in front of what remained from Piano’s modular IBM Traveling Pavilion, designed between 1984-1986.

It’s clear from the video interview playing on the second floor that Piano and Gardin have mutual affection and respect for what the other does so well. Perhaps Gardin was not the ideal person to choose the images for this show, however, which viewed as a group have a sameness and an aridity. None of Piano’s works in the U.S. were included. At least two of them are masterpieces. Was Gardin on assignment elsewhere for the years when the main building for the Menil Collection in Houston and the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York were under construction? Or were his documents from the construction inferior or flawed? Curatorial information is sketchy. The dates of Piano’s projects are listed but not the dates of Gardin’s photographs.

I carp because this selection whets my appetite for more. If 10,000 negatives of Piano’s designs truly exist, then an editor should have an easy and a delightful time sifting through that material and publishing the 251st book in Gardin’s estimable career.

Collector’s POV: Gianni Berengo Gardin is represented by Contrasto Galleria in Milan (here) and Studio Mariani Gallery in L’Aquila (here). Gardin’s work has not appeared consistently at auction in recent years, but a handful of lots have appeared in European auctions, with prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $10000.

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